|(Bottles L-R) Limoncello, plum bourbon, Rainier cherry bump. © Ryan Schierling|
Get started on a few of these tipples now and you'll have plenty of practice time before next season's holiday haze begins.
There are menu pages of before-dinner drinks available. Some people just call those drinks. The French have a couple of words that have become synonymous with the intake of specific alcoholic beverages before and after dinner – apéritif and digestif – which basically mean "to open" and "a digestive." In America, we call apéritifs "happy hour," and that's unfortunate, because it literally translates to "half-price well drinks and non-import draft beers, cheapskate."
Apertifs are usually herbal recipes meant to stimulate the appetite. I don't typically need a reason to be hungry, so here at home we occasionally like to sip on the after-dinner beverage – the digestif.
If I could figure out the secret blend of ingredients in Fernet, I'd make that, but the purported 27 herbs from five continents is daunting. Sometimes you just have to use what you've got on hand, so we tend to focus on simpler concoctions with a minimum of components.
We've been making the Italian digestivo limoncello for quite a while now. In Washington state, we made it with vodka because high-proof grain alcohol like Everclear is illegal. In Texas, the crazy-making neutral-flavor grain alcohol is cheap and readily available, so we've gone with that. It doesn't take much, really, for a very nice batch – the zest of 20 or so unwaxed lemons, a fair amount of high-proof hooch, some simple syrup, an empty glass gallon-sized container, and time.
Zest of 20 unwaxed lemons
1.75-liter bottle of neutral grain spirits (Everclear)
2 cups sugar
2 cups water
Using a microplane grater, zest the lemons onto some parchment paper or wax paper. Put the lemon zest into a large glass jar. Pour alcohol over zest and put a lid on. Store in a cool, dark place for a few months, shaking the container once a week or so. Strain well. In a small saucepan over low heat, dissolve the sugar and water. Put the simple syrup in the refrigerator until chilled, then mix the lemon-infused liquor with the cold simple syrup and pour into bottles. Store in a cool, dark place for another month, then retire it to the freezer. Serve in cordials or tall shot glasses for sipping. It's a little less science than it is alchemy, and there's really no wrong way to do it. Our recent batch began in early September, and we bottled in the first week of November.
10 pounds ripe plums, pitted
1 4-pound bag of white sugar
1.75-liter bottle of bourbon
There’s a fruit tree in our yard that’s been somewhat of a mystery to us. Since we moved in four years ago, the tree has flowered every summer but never produced anything but the indiscernible beginnings of some type of stone fruit. This year, the flowers gave way to tiny green orbs that eventually became beautiful dark plums. While the great-tailed grackles quickly absconded with every last bit of ripe fruit, we picked the greenies and packed them into a paper grocery bag. It sat on top of the refrigerator for about a week, until we had a good batch of fragrant, ripe purple plums.
After washing everything thoroughly, I squished each plum in my hands, pulled out the pit and looked for worms, then tossed the fruit into a wide-mouthed gallon glass jar. After the 10 pounds of plums had been pitted, I poured an entire four-pound bag of white sugar over the fruit and juice. I didn't stir it in, I just poured it on. A few layers of cheesecloth and a rubber band secured the top of the jar, and I put it onto a top pantry shelf to breathe, think about things, and eventually ferment a little bit.
There will still be a little bit of sediment in your plum bourbon, unless you strain it through coffee filters, which will take forever. FOREVER. Feel free to try out a jelly strainer if you like. Serve plum bourbon in cordials, or sip on it with an ice cube in a lowball glass.
1 pound Rainier cherries, stemmed but not pitted
2 cups white sugar
1 750-ml bottle of vodka
Mix all ingredients in an appropriate Mason jar, shake well. Let sit in a cool, dark place for a few months.
Since we were already planning on experimenting with the fruity booze when the plums were harvested, I also bought a pound of lovely Rainier cherries and some high-proof vodka. Now, folks have warned against using vodka for making "cherry bounce," as it ends up with a supremely medicinal, Robitussin vs. Wild Cherry Life Savers flavor. Not so much a cherry bounce as a cherry bump, our vodka-based concoction is only slightly medicinal, but very tasty and perfect for those occasions where I feel the need to proclaim that "Daddy's got to take his medicine," before throwing back a shot.
The whole key to our cherry bump is that no smashing of the cherries equates to no straining. The liquor, infused with the whole Rainiers and sugar, is still more liquor than syrup. It is mildly sweet, a little bracing and a thimbleful is enough to clear the sinuses and bring a warm feeling to the belly. It is delicious mixed with your favorite cola.